Before it was ever a Marshall Field's, it was just a field.
Barb Siegman remembers the site very well -- the vastness of it, the emptiness.
The Villa Park native remembers too when the field at the corner of 22nd Street and Route 83 in Oak Brook became the Oakbrook Center mall.
For Siegman, just a girl when the mall opened in 1962, and many others from Oak Brook and the surrounding area, the mall always has been something of a special place. Her mother, Elfriede Lohrentz, worked there from 1966 until 1981, and Siegman worked there while attending college.
When Oakbrook Center opened, the closest mall was in Hillside and, truth be told, that one couldn't hold a candle to the new facility. Woodfield was still a decade away from taking its place as one of the region's premier tourist destinations.
If you were around DuPage County back then, Oakbrook Center with its gardens and walkways and selection of stores was the place to go.
Now, more than 50 years later, the center is undergoing its first major renovation at a cost of more than $30 million.
The mall has seen its share of additions over the years but never a full-scale makeover of this size. With the center celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2012, mall General Manager Chuck Fleming says the timing just seemed right for a major facelift.
"You always need to reinvent yourself," Fleming says. "We really wanted to enhance what we have, and also maintain the things that have kept shoppers coming to the Oakbrook Center."
Renovation talks began three or four years ago. When the construction is finished -- a few weeks before Black Friday, if all goes as planned -- it will be just as Fleming described it: an enhancement to what always has lured shoppers.
Oakbrook Center has always been an outdoor mall, and the renovations will only improve that experience, he says.
A spiraling fountain, located outside Crate & Barrel near the center of the mall, is being added, along with the "Village Green" -- an open lawn area that will be used for seasonal entertainment and special events, including live music.
Another new feature is what the mall is calling an "amenities pavilion." Located near Sears on the mall's west side will be an enclosed glass pavilion where shoppers can find soft seating, tables and a warming station that includes a fireplace. The amenities pavilion will be open-air in summer and enclosed in winter.
There also will be a number of smaller fountains added across the mall and fire totems for keeping warm during winter months. New walkways have been put in, but Fleming says the square footage of trees and flowers will remain the same.
And no mall renovation would be complete without the addition of new stores and restaurants.
The lower level of Neiman Marcus, a three-story store on the mall's east side, is being converted into Perry's Steakhouse, a Texas-based chain making its debut in the Chicago area, and Old Town Pour House, a popular bar and restaurant branching out from its primary location on Chicago's Near North Side.
The former Bloomingdale's, which closed in 2012, will now feature six individual retailers: Tommy Bahama, Lululemon Athletica, Hugo Boss, Fixtures Living, The Container Store and a yet-to-be-announced sixth shop.
"I think this is something people are excited about," Fleming says. "I believe this renovation will enable us to move into the next 50 years."
Executing the plan
Anyone who has stepped foot in Oakbrook Center during the past year has heard the clanking and clamoring of construction.
Shoppers have had to take roundabout paths to get from store to store, but none of the retailers has been forced to close during the work.
And while the construction may have caused groans every once in a while, Fleming says it has not noticeably hurt the mall in terms of day-to-day operations.
A number of the anchor stores also have undergone renovations of their own. Lord & Taylor completely remodeled its main floor and expanded many of its departments, completing the work in April.
Nordstrom is undergoing a roughly $35 million makeover. Store manager Shea Jensen said many of the departments have outgrown their space. Men's and women's apparel will no longer be split between floors, and a full-service restaurant with a bar is now open on the first floor.
Nordstrom renovations are expected to be complete in early November. Jensen says she would be lying if she didn't think construction affected the store's business.
"It can be disruptive," she says. "Our intention has been to be available and accessible to serve customers through it."
Jensen says Nordstrom has tried to confine the loudest work to when the store is closed, or at least when it is not at its busiest.
But it's harder to hide construction on the main concourse at the center.
Oak Brook Community Development Director Bob Kallien says the village has not received any complaints about the construction. The village is well aware of the mall's importance to the community.
"(The Oakbrook Center) has been a centerpiece (of Oak Brook) for the last 50 years," Kallien says. "Its success leads to the successes of the village."
Construction has not stopped Siegman from shopping at Oakbrook Center. With the renovations coming down the home stretch, she's excited to see how the changes turn out for her lifelong shopping destination.
"I'm going to go over and see how the whole area looks and how it all came together," Siegman said. "I'm interested to see the fountain area and how they put all the plantings in."
When Siegman's mother retired from Marshall Field's in 1981, the store rewarded her with a lifetime discount. And when Macy's acquired Marshall Field's in 2005, it continued to honor the agreement.
Elfriede continued shopping at her former employer into her 90s. And when age began to take its toll, Siegman would shop for her. Elfriede died last year at the age of 95.
"Marshall Field's was definitely my favorite store (growing up)," Siegman says.
Oakbrook Center has come a long way since 1962. The vast and empty field is long gone. And so is Marshall Field's.
But the memories of those early days remain strong for Siegman and others like her who were around when the mall sprouted from seemingly nothing and provided a backdrop for at least a small portion of their lives.
Mall officials know all that. With any luck, they say, the new-look Oakbrook Center will play a similar role for the next 50 years.